Participation People

Energy and food security in Africa

Prepared by the Environment and Natural Resources Service (SDRN)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division

AFRICA HAS MORE COUNTRIES with food security problems than any other region. Two-thirds of all countries suffering food insecurity are in Africa, where GDP has declined for six consecutive years. Of the 44 countries with poor or critical food security, 30 are in Africa. Present trends would mean that the number of chronically undernourished in Sub-Saharan Africa would rise from 180 to 300 million by the year 2010.

Energy is one key to higher food production in the region. Many African countries are among the lowest per capita energy consumers in the world. In all sectors - industry, agriculture, transport, household and commercial - a lack of minimum energy inputs has led to continued low productivity and impaired economic growth. Most of Africa's rural population meet their energy needs using fuelwood and other traditional sources: it is estimated that about 130 million people live in areas where fuelwood consumption outpaces the natural regenerative capacity of the forest. This environmental degradation is compounded by greater reliance on energy sources such as dung or unused plant material, which are needed for maintaining soil fertility and structure for future production.

A transition to sustainable energy systems is urgently needed to accelerate the growth of basic food production, harvesting and processing. However, breaking the current energy bottleneck must also be sustainable - i.e. environmentally sound, socially acceptable and economically viable. Such a transition involves a commitment to long-term developmental goals and requires innovative policy and technological solutions.

For Africa, an energy transition requires a move from the present levels of subsistence energy usage - based on human labour and fuelwood - to a situation where household, services and farming activities use a range of sustainable and diversified energy sources. Obvious benefits are greater resilience in the production system, higher productivity, improved efficiency and higher incomes to farmers. Environmental degradation driven by poverty would be minimized.

The investment required to make such a transition would not be significantly different from that required for conventional approaches. However, the process of identifying needs and promoting investment in a range of technological options would be considerably different. Among current problems are the following:

The energy transition in rural areas will not occur under a "business-as usual" situation. A concerted effort is needed on the part of the many actors influencing energy supply and demand patterns. One challenge is to reduce the barriers facing rural energy development which arise from a lack of policy and programme coordination between the rural and agricultural sectors, and the energy sector institutions. The rural sector continues to remain outside energy assessment and planning, which are normal practice for industry, commerce, transport. This is due, in part, to the small impact rural energy has on the national energy balance. Because of its meagre energy consumption and poor data, the important role agriculture plays as a source of food and fibre, foreign exchange and a relatively large percentage of GDP, is often ignored.

The dispersed and often non-monetized nature of rural energy also contributes to its neglect in planning and investment. Energy authorities rarely have an institutional or operational presence in rural areas and only a few agriculture and rural development programmes deal explicitly with rural energy requirements. This is due, in part, to lack of technical capability. However, a change in mind-set is also needed among policy makers to recognize the potential economic and social gains to be realized from increasing energy supply in rural areas. These gains will translate into improved use and management of land resources by allowing more efficient use of resources and less degrading land-use practices, such as excessive fuelwood use.

National agricultural and rural development authorities, normally without any mandate regarding energy matters, are often incapable of negotiating their energy requirements with electricity utility companies and energy authorities. Thus, a "vacuum" of responsibility and lack of guidance for energy interventions in rural areas seems to exist in most countries. No institution is actually "in charge" of energy for development of the rural and agricultural sector. This leads to low allocation of resources and investment for rural development and agricultural activities vis-a-vis other sectors of the economy. Since no single institution, either governmental, local or private could alone cope with all issues involved, a political interest, coupled with effective inter-institutional cooperation and collaboration is required.

Promoting food security will inevitably involve increases in energy inputs for water supply and management, plant nutrients, agro-processing and community lighting. Consistent with the SARD framework, there is need to shift the emphasis from single-issue solutions to more integrated, sustainable approaches to development.

For example, pesticides alone are not sufficient or economically cost-effective in controlling most pest problems. Strategies now exist for many crops which involve understanding the pest life cycle, economic damage thresholds and the effects of cultivation practices which can greatly reduce or even eliminate the need for regular pesticide applications. Integrated pest management (IPM) is an effective way of reducing production costs and avoiding the associated risk of pollution and contamination. Similar evidence of the benefits from integrated approaches exists for mineral fertilizers. Integrated plant nutrition systems (IPNS) that use organic materials, leguminous crop rotation, and cultivation practices to maintain the optimal balance of soil structure and plant nutrients for agriculture are more beneficial economically to farmers than solely relying on mineral fertilizers. In both examples, environmental protection and cost efficiency can be realized.

The efficient use of increasingly scarce water resource in Africa does not imply large scale, energy-intensive irrigation schemes. Small pumps have had an important beneficial effect on irrigation in some African countries for vegetable and even rice production. Where surface water is available this technology represents a well distributed and energy efficient option. Experience in Africa has shown that the way in which the water resource is made available, both its price and mode of delivery, will determine whether the resource is used sustainably. Thus irrigation schemes should follow the principles established by the International Action Programme on Water and Sustainable Agricultural Development ,which takes into account the planning, development and management of water resources in an integrated manner.

Also important is the potential for biomass energy conversion technologies. Residues from wood and agro-industries, purposely grown biomass and municipal solid wastes may play a major role in many African countries. The economic and social assessment of these options is needed to avoid disrupting employment and resource use. Local and global environmental benefits of biomass energy conversion must also be considered.

National and district rural energy strategies are needed to provide a common framework and plan to direct investment and pull together the efforts of various ministries such as Agriculture, Energy, Forestry, Planning and Agrarian Reform. NGOs, local community groups, and the private sector have an important role to play in such initiatives. There are signs in some African countries such as Ghana, Morocco, Tanzania, Tunisia and Zimbabwe that new institutional and energy planning approaches are gradually emerging to improve the availability of rural energy supply for rural development.

Awareness of the constraints facing national and local authorities when trying to solve energy problems in rural areas is being increasingly converted into action. Decentralization of the decision making process and of energy production, enhanced social participation, institutional linkages, and the entry of new technologies are only some of the elements which will directly and indirectly influence a mobilization of efforts towards achieving food security and SARD.


Go to: Toward sustainable food security | Special presentation - Text-only / Graphics-rich